The History of CLAS in 1 Column (ok...maybe 2)

by Robert Zirpolo

The following essay on the founding of CLAS was written for the CLAS 30th Anniversary celebration, January 6, 2018

CLAS Members, with guest speaker Bobby Sparks, at the 30th Anniversary Celebration, held Jan 6, 2018 at the New England Air Museum.

Even though the class anniversary of 2018 is for our 30th year of existence, the organization started forming in 1987. At the time, ballooning as a sport was in the midst of a renaissance, as there were many new pilots being trained in New England as well as the rest of the country. Some pilots in Connecticut thought it might be beneficial to have a local club, not limited to pilots, to help the sport grow in the form of education and safety, to get together, fly in different areas, socialize and also to give us a better reason to get out of the house. There was also a small contingent that thought an organized club was not a good idea. Everyone had an opinion.

With the influx of new pilots, and increase of flying activity all over the region and the country, the usual landowner issues were popping up, and sometimes those responsible for creating the problem either didn't know about it, ignored it or we're just not sympathetic to the landowner for the problem they created. When I became a Designated Pilot Examiner in 1988, I received my fair share of calls from the local FSDO (FAA Flight Standards District Office) about complaints being made about a balloon flying low, scaring people, dogs, cows, horses; driving onto property without permission to retrieve equipment; etc. You get the idea.

We recognized the need to be able to address the concerns of the FAA as well as the general public; hence, CLAS was born. The temporary name of the club before the articles of organization were formed was LOBO which stood for Loosely Organized Ballooning Organization. I can't remember who came up with the name but it almost has a Jim Chubbuck ring to it. Eventually we all submitted suggestions for a permanent name and the Connecticut Lighter than Air Society was chosen.

Some of the first meetings were held at people's houses; people like Dennis and Susie Kim, Ruth Salzberg, Paul & Valerie Morlock, and Polly & Dave Lasher - names that few current club members will recognize. After seeking some guidance from other balloon and clubs in the Northeast, we were able to come up with a set of bylaws and elect a group of officers. Our first officers were Paul Morlock (President), Dave Lasher (Vice-President), Polly Lasher (Secretary), and Cheryl Regan (Treasurer).

At the time we had no formal dues but everyone ponied up a few bucks here and there to cover what few expenses we had. Eventually dues were set at $20 year. Membership in the first few years was approximately 40 - 50 people.

Another issue that came up in the late 1980s was liability insurance. Premium started increasing after some higher-profile fatalities. Some balloon insurance companies wanted pilots to attend continuing education seminars, offering a 10% discount on their policies. One of the first activities were worked on was establishing a BFA-sanctioned Safety Seminar back in the days when seminars were few and far between. It was a true team effort with many meeting scheduled for curriculum content, location, finding presenters, housing and all the elements to put on a top-notch event.

The first seminar was organized in January 1988 with 50 or so attendees. In subsequent years the attendance rates were almost doubled as we started bringing in internationally-known presenters. In 1989 the headline speaker was Per Lindstrand who had completed the first hot air balloon flight across the Atlantic in July 1987, with Richard Branson as his co-pilot. A few local pilots and I drove up to the Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine launch site to watch the inflation and launch which was extraordinary. Needless to say seminars were a great success educationally and financially as they were organized almost every year and attracted some great talent at speakers. Per Lindstrand came back for a second time after he crossed the Pacific a few years later.

2014 Safety Seminar

Another project that was undertaken was the printing of a book of maps to identify locations where there had been a problem with a landowner, or identifying sensitive areas of livestock or horse farms. The book was divided into sections of the state and was updated when needed.

These are just a few of the activities that were undertaken by our club. To go into more detail take up much more space that is available in this program. Over the years many individuals gave their time to help this organization grow and prosper. Fast forward to 2018, we still have approximately 40 members. Nationwide, ballooning community struggle to attract new pilots to take the sport further. The average age of a balloon pilot in the US is 54 years old, which mirrors the average age of the powered aviation community.

In other parts of the country and the world, commercial balloon ride businesses utilizing high-capacity balloons carrying up to 31 people continue to grow, so we know that the public is still interested, but more for a bucket list item or selfie on Instagram.

When someone writes the 40th year summary of class let's hope the future of our sport has gone through another renaissance.